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Echinacea: Potential Health Benefits and Risks

Echinacea is an herb that has been used for many decades to stimulate the immune system and thus prevent and treat symptoms related to respiratory conditions such as common colds or the flu. However, studies have so far revealed mixed results as to whether Echinacea really prevents or shortens illness. Besides being used for common colds and the flu, people use Echinacea to treat skin problems, such as acne and boils (swollen areas that form around infected hair follicles) as well as treating wounds.

Echinacea is a flowering perennial plant from the daisy family native to the East and Midwest regions of the United States. Three out of nine known species are used in dietary supplements: Echinacea angustifolia, Echinacea pallida and Echinacea purpurea. Depending on the brand the whole plant and/or its roots are used to make supplements. The most popular form of Echinacea supplement is a liquid extract made from the root of Echinacea purpurea. In fact, the above-ground plant parts and roots have different chemical properties that can influence the effectiveness of the Echinacea herb.

When it comes to the health effects of Echinacea, scientific studies conducted to date have revealed mixed results. Some found no link between taking Echinacea and the prevention of colds and other infections whereas others have indicated that Echinacea may provide some relief to patients with upper respiratory infections. There have been also several smaller studies examining the effects of Echinacea on other conditions such as skin and oral wounds, genital herpes, radiation-associated toxicity and vaginal yeast infections.

As with all other herbal supplements one of the problems is the issue of standardization. Herbal supplements are not obligated to comply with the strict safety standards required of medications. It is also difficult to know what part of the plant is used in the supplement and to reliably determine what species of Echinacea and how much of it is contained in the supplement. In addition, even plants of the same species may have different variations of active substances, depending on factors such as individual genetic differences, where and how the plant was grown, harvested and processed.

Potential Risks and Side Effects of Echinacea

People with asthma or atopy and those allergic to plants in the Asteraceae or Compositae family should not take Echinacea. These large families contain a variety of different plants, including daisies, chrysanthemums, ragweed and marigolds. Furthermore, pregnant and breastfeeding women as well as children under 12 are advised not to use Echinacea.

Echinacea rarely causes side effects. However, some sensitive individuals may experience an allergic reaction including symptoms such as rashes, swelling and increased asthma symptoms. In the most severe cases, anaphylactic shock may occur, a potentially life-threatening, whole-body allergic reaction that may cause a collapse of the circulatory system. Gastrointestinal side effects, dizziness, nausea and muscle aches have also been reported in people who used Echinacea.

Few studies have been conducted on the potential interactions between herbs like Echinacea and medications or other dietary supplements. Some rare cases in the past have linked Echinacea with hepatitis. Therefore, patients taking certain pain-relief medications, heart medications, oral antifungal medications, cancer drugs, anabolic steroids and drugs designed to suppress the immune system are advised to avoid taking Echinacea. Patients who wish to use Echinacea are urged to discuss these issues with their doctors.